Spectra Ensemble – Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate

Ethel Smyth
The Boatswain’s Mate – Opera in one Act and two Parts to a libretto by the composer after a short story by William Wymark Jacobs [sung to an uncredited arrangement in English]

Mary Ann / Ensemble Mezzo – Naho Koizumi
Ensemble Tenor – Dominic Lee
Mrs Waters – Josephine Goddard
Harry Benn – John Upperton
Ned Travers – Shaun Aquilina
Policeman / Ensemble Bass – Devon Harrison
John Warner (piano), Emily Earl (violin) & Nina Kiva (cello)

Cecilia Stinton – Director
Ellie Roser – Set & Costume Designer
Catja Hamilton – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 September, 2022
Venue: The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, England

This has been Ethel Smyth’s year (and probably not before time): Glyndebourne opened back in May with an eye-catching production of The Wreckers which was then taken to the Proms, and that festival also presented the Mass in D and the Concerto for Violin and Horn.

Having already performed her smaller opera The Boatswain’s Mate (1914) as part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival (itself no insignificant institution for the promotion of opera) in London, Spectra Ensemble are now taking this work on tour. Popular in the composer’s day, like much of her output it has since remained rather forgotten.

This production sets it, like The Wreckers, at the coast, but it is essentially a romantic comedy on a much smaller scale, as the lonely Harry Benn devises a plan to make the landlady of the Bee Hive pub, the widowed Mrs Waters fall in love with him. But that seems to backfire when the scheme unravels and the accomplice he has enlisted, Ned Travers, appears to stir her affections at the end.  By centring the interest of the work and the audience’s sympathies squarely upon the fiercely independent Mrs Waters (despite the opera’s title) Smyth consciously intended it to be a feminist work, as signalled by her prominent use of her famous March of the Women in the middle of the overture. The theme of the work and its setting is presaged during the Overture in Cecilia Stinton’s intimate production by having Dominic Lee and Naho Koizumi enact a scene on the beach in which he makes flirtatious advances to her, but she playfully fends them off.

The uncredited reduced version of the score for piano trio is felicitous. As the work’s first Part is structured as a ballad opera, with spoken dialogue between the songs, the performers at the rear of the stage effectively integrated into the plot by functioning as a band in the pub, particularly as the upright piano faces back to the audience and so looks very much part of its furniture. As the accompaniment to Smyth’s catchy tunes, the ensemble also incidentally evokes the arrangements with piano trio of many British folksongs which George Thomson famously commissioned from Haydn and Beethoven. The Spectra Ensemble take a fairly relaxed approach to the relatively less prominent instrumental dimension of that first Part, accompanying discreetly. In the through-composed second, they bring more energy and urgency to the music’s more proactive interventions in the drama, underpinned especially by John Warner’s alertness and humour on the piano.

The singers give characterful accounts of their roles, creating a sense of the work’s own time and place with the enunciation of their words (even if Smyth’s text is not especially inspired) particularly on John Upperton and Josephine Goddard’s parts. The latter also achieves effusive, lyrical flights of emotion in the more sustained passages of the second Part as she contemplates the feelings she might entertain for Ned, the unexpected intruder. Shaun Aquilina sings that role with lively determination as he introduces himself in a ballad, recounting his past as a soldier, and flowering ardour later on as he comes to an accord with Mrs Waters to turn Harry’s plot against him. Devon Harrison gives a jocular account of the Policeman, heralded by Smyth’s mischievous quotation of the famous opening motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. All round, then, this is an entertaining and ultimately moving account of a charming, untroubling opera.

Further performances on 25 September (Aldeburgh) and 9 October (Great Yarmouth)

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